Mark Callanan reviews Larry Matthews’ The Artificial Newfoundlander.
In Newfoundland literature it’s almost legendary how the Burning Rock Collective, a writing group made famous by the most famous of its members, grew out of a creative writing course taught by author and academic Larry Mathews. While most of the attention has gone to stylistic pyrotechnicians Michael Winter and Lisa Moore, Mathews’ 2003 short story collection, The Sandblasting Hall of Fame, has gained some small (if inadequate) recognition. In a Canadian Encyclopedia entry on the Collective, Mathews’ first book is identified as being among the best short story collections to have been produced by the BRC writers.
And, truth be told, it is a solid collection: comically adept, but also capable of serious and piercing insights into the human condition. Describing its characters on the jacket copy, Mathews calls them “Clowns […] that see the Fall of Man whenever they slip on a banana peel.” But “They’re pilgrims too, always looking for something they usually think they’ve found.” The narrator of Mathews’ first novel, The Artificial Newfoundlander, pilgrim though he may be, has no such illusions about having already found what he seeks; Hugh Norman, a fifty-eight-year-old divorced professor of English, seems to have no idea what he is looking for.
At the start of the novel, Norman’s daughter Emily has left her husband, Terry Foley, and taken her children from Vancouver to St. John’s, to live with Norman until she finds her feet. Foley, Norman’s former student and “sometime drinking buddy,” follows Emily to St. John’s, apparently intending to use Norman as a go-between in his quest to reconcile. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the circumstances around Emily’s leaving have less to do with Foley’s marital infidelities, and more to do with an unresolved crime that Emily may or may not have committed back home in Vancouver.
Norman’s academic obsession is the writing of an obscure Oblate priest, Alphonsus Ignatius Cleary, who, having published four novels “which could never make it onto a university syllabus […] because they can’t be used to illustrate some grand Canadian theme or other,” disappeared in 1985 “under suspicious circumstances.” His body was never found. Cleary’s greatest distinction (aside from being almost universally unread) is to have been “that rarest of species, a Newfoundlander who loathed Newfoundland and chose to live elsewhere.”
Added to this is the subplot of a burgeoning romance between Norman and Maureen, former colleague, ex-lover, and author of Liza Speaks Her Mind—a poetry collection comprising monologues in the voice of the character Liza from the song “I’se the B’y.” The Liza collection is Maureen’s attempt to portray “the nineteenth-century Newfoundland woman from a serious feminist perspective.” Each poem, as Norman puts it, has Liza “describing some incident from daily life glossed with appropriate feminist commonplaces.” And while the satire here is not very effective, on account of its descriptive vagueness (what exactly is an “appropriate feminist commonplace”?), there is a funny parody of Margaret Atwood’s heavily anthologized hook and eye poem.
Elsewhere, Mathews skewers the world of academe, at one point describing an “eminently acceptable” Ph. D. thesis as “the standard combination of sophistication and tunnel-visioned gullibility that passes for intellectual achievement, the whole enterprise surrounded by an aura of not-really-mattering.” Departmental politics also come in for a drubbing, with Mathews subtly mocking the internal workings of workplace societies, in the university’s ivory tower and beyond.
As the novel progresses, Norman (somewhat unwittingly) comes closer and closer to uncovering the circumstances surrounding the Oblate novelist’s apparent death, he and Maureen slowly rebuild the intimacy of their former romance, Emily is further implicated in the aforementioned west coast crime, and Foley generally makes an ass of himself.
Throughout, Norman remains caustically humorous, endearingly self-deprecating, and often painfully introspective. (He seems doomed to remain an outsider in his adopted province, despite the fact he has lived there for eighteen years.) Mathews makes him say some pretty funny things in service of comedy, but he is also capable of creating the kind of touching moment that results when, for instance, Norman observes his grandson playing soccer rather badly, “his skinny legs pumping ludicrously in the general direction of manhood.”
It is moments like these that push The Artificial Newfoundlander beyond light satire and into deeper cultural commentary, but on the whole, the book comes up short in that respect. It’s a funny and highly entertaining novel, but it doesn’t quite manage the trick of Mathews’ short stories, whose characters manage to be both clowns and, almost in spite of themselves, seers.